is the mla about literature anymore?
Phil Magness is at it again. In a recent blog post, he presented the results of a very simple exercise. Go to the Modern Language Association web site, search for the number panels on specific authors (e.g., Shakespeare or Toni Morrison) and compare with the number of panels you find if you search for topics relating to politically controversial topics like climate change. The results? I will quote Phil here:
So…I decided to take a look. The following rough tallies show the number of MLA 2017 sessions that included at least one paper or presentation on an overtly political topic.
- 22 sessions featured one or more presentations on environmental justice themes (e.g. climate change, ecology, animal rights/extinction, and resource extraction)
- 15 sessions featured one or more presentations on “globalization”
- 39 sessions featured one or more presentations on “postcolonialism”
- 8 sessions featured one or more presentations on adjunct activism or “contingent” academic labor
- 10 sessions featured one or more presentations invoking “neoliberalism”
- 3 sessions featured one or more presentations on the politics of boycotting (usually tied to the Israel-Palestine conflict)
Some of this is standard fare, especially in Critical Theory-infected disciplines. But I was also curious how it stacked up against what most people think of as the scholarly domain of English professors, which is to say the standards of the literary canon. For comparison, here are the number of sessions that include at least one paper on a prominent literary figure’s work:
- 13 sessions mentioning William Shakespeare
- 5 sessions mentioning Charles Dickens
- 1 session mentioning Mark Twain
- 2 sessions mentioning William Faulkner
- 2 sessions mentioning Ernest Hemingway
- 3 sessions mentioning Jane Austen
- 4 sessions mentioning Samuel Beckett
- 4 sessions mentioning James Joyce
- 4 sessions mentioning Virginia Woolf
- 1 sessions mentioning Leo Tolstoy
- 1 session mentioning Toni Morrison
- 3 sessions mentioning Edgar Allen Poe
- 3 sessions mentioning Langston Hughes
- 2 sessions mentioning Emily Dickinson
- 1 session mentioning Ralph Ellison
- 1 session mentioning Walt Whitman
- 2 sessions mentioning George Eliot
- 2 sessions mentioning one of the Bronte sisters
- 0 sessions mentioning George Orwell
I have a few quibbles here and there. Some of the topics are literary, but do not appear so to outsiders.* But Phil’s got a point. When boycotting Israel gets more attention than Emily Dickinson, it’s just not right. Something’s rotten in the state of literary criticism.
So, now what? Rather than ridicule the parade of the offended, I’d rather be constructive. First, the MLA leadership should simply put a cap on this sort of thing. Period. Unless it has a very concrete connection to literature and culture, don’t approve. Second, create a parallel organization dedicated to activism. If people want to do it, fine. But don’t let a scholarly organization turn in a political organization. Third, in a hypothetical “activism in the academy,” actually invite people who have experience in politics – activists, office holders, political professionals, etc. who can give real insight and explain how academic might effectively pursue their ideas in a pluralistic democracy.
* For example, “postcolonial theory” means the body of theory that describes societies after decolonization and how that is reflected in their cultural productions. So, postcolonial theory could very easily literary in application, but it could also easily lead to endless “theory talk.”